With the Biden/Harris administration in the White House, will there be an effort to re-open Cuban-US relations as we saw under President Obama/Biden?
Cuban Change of Guard
For the first time in nearly 6o years, a Castro will no longer seat the Cuban government. The current president, Diáz-Canel, who took over the duties of running the country from President Raul Castro in 2018, will find new younger leadership for the direction of the broader Communist Party of Cuba for which Raul Castro was still head.
“The Communist Party has little choice but to reform or face rising discontent as Cuba faces its worst economic crisis since the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union. By ushering in a new, younger political class, Mr. Castro hopes to set the country on a course to fully embrace and implement the economic reforms he introduced in the years since his brother Fidel — the leader of the revolution — died five years ago.” – New York Times
Sweeping change, however, may still be far off. China has demonstrated how a modern-communist government can operate within a mostly capitalist economy. There are now 53 free-trade/technological/economic zones and two Special Administrative Regions (Hong Kong and Macao) all of which employ capitalism more or less.
These zones have allowed China to modernize its economy while maintaining its political ideology. Applying the same strategy could make special interests sections in Havana, Trinidad, Varadero, and Santiago de Cuba allowing freer movement, capitalism, and entrepreneurship.
US-Cuban Relations Official Policy
Since the 1950s, under the threat of a communist Cuban regime less than 90 miles from the US coast, the United States has maintained a trade embargo against the island nation.
“Cuba and the United States restored diplomatic relations on 20 July 2015, relations which had been severed in 1961 during the Cold War. U.S. diplomatic representation in Cuba is handled by the United States Embassy in Havana, and there is a similar Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C. The United States, however, continues to maintain its commercial, economic, and financial embargo, making it illegal for U.S. corporations to do business with Cuba.” Wikipedia
The national security concern centered around communist ties to the USSR and the strategic placement of nuclear warheads on the doorstep of the US border. However, much of this concern has been abated and a Cuban threat to the US government is limited at this time.
The US allows for the following official travel reasons:
- Family visits
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activities
- Professional research or professional meetings
- Educational academic activities
- People-to-people exchanges (for travel-related transactions purchased prior to June 5, 2019)
- Religious activities
- Public performance, clinics, workshops, athletic or other competitions, and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials
- Travel related to certain authorized export transactions
Cuba limits entry solely on the basis of which passport is utilized for dual Cuban-American citizens.
Easing/Re-Opening Under Obama/Biden
Toward the end of President Barack Obama and (then) Vice President Biden’s second term, travel to Cuba was expanded for Americans. Secretary of State, John Kerry, restored full diplomatic ties under the Obama administration and travel to Cuba was more or less open.
President Trump reversed many of the changes that Obama/Biden had implemented. Among those, the end to cruises, private yacht or boat trips, educational and cultural trips, business meetings, staying in hotels owned by the Cuban government, and the importation of Cuban cigars and alcohol even within normal personal use limits.
Will Cuban Travel Normalize?
President Biden stated during his campaign that he would reverse Trump’s changes and thaw relations again, though no formal plan nor timeline has been announced. During the 2020 campaign, Secretary of Transportation Buttigieg stated the following position:
“Yes. Isolation hasn’t worked,” Buttigieg told The Post. “We need to engage with Cuba, supporting political and economic reform as well as working to stop Cuban interference in Venezuela and Nicaragua. U.S.-Cuba citizen engagement, expanded travel opportunities and the repeal of remittance restrictions enjoy broad support from our Latin American partners, from the U.S. public and business community, and from a majority of Cuban Americans.”
The United States trades with other communist governments and even authoritarian ones. Why Marriott is free to open unlimited hotels in mainland China and Vietnam but not in Cuba is a relic of a policy from a bygone era. The approved travel reasons are so broad that almost every traveler that wants to visit Cuba can do so but making a truly lasting impact on Cuban business owners, or providing ease for US travelers remains out of reach.
Spending money in Cuba is very difficult due to the remaining embargo and Treasury Department restrictions. Credit cards and bank withdrawals are restricted making it hard and dangerous (lots of cash) to do business on the island. Technically, nearly any purchase is also restricted though very difficult to enforce.
In early March, 80 congressional Democrats sent the President a letter asking for terms to return to those outlined by the State Department six years ago. The Democrats control the House, hold the tiebreaker in the Senate, and of course the White House so it’s entirely possible to execute this. President Biden hasn’t been shy about issuing executive orders and could reverse President Trump’s changes.
Both the US and Cuba have substantial matters requiring governmental attention. However, if there was ever a time politically in which the Cuba-US relations could open again and stay open, this appears to be that window. When President Obama pushed through the prior reforms, he didn’t control the senate but the Biden/Harris administration does and that could be all the difference. There’s also little use for the trade embargo now as the Cuba poses little military threat to the US and its allies, and the government actively trades with other communist countries globally.
What do you think? Will the Biden/Harris administration re-open to Cuba as had begun under Obama/Biden? Would this be a good or bad thing?